March 24, 2018

Tillerson arrives in Africa with a narrow mission: Counterterrorism

10 March 2018, 01:02 | Kara Nash

A conversation on Secretary Tillerson's March 2018 Trip to Africa

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According to the U.S. State Department, Secretary Tillerson will meet with President Uhuru Kenyatta and other government officials in talks set to focus on continued support for the democratic process in Kenya, refugee issues, and press freedom. Prior to his arrival in Ethiopia, the White House reported that the tour had been oriented to foster cooperation and mutual respect, based on understanding.

Tillerson, who departs later Tuesday for Ethiopia, also sought to contrast the USA approach to Africa to that of China, which he says "encourages dependency" that undermines sovereignty on the continent.

"And also, we're looking hopefully at South Africa with the election of Cyril Ramaphosa from Jacob Zuma and seeing how that's going to transition".

Speaking at George Mason University, Virginia, before his departure, the Secretary of State expressed optimism that there was ample opportunity in Africa for economic growth, greater prosperity and for responding to global challenges through mutually respectful partnerships.

The trip, his first official visit to Africa, as Secretary of State, will begin with a trip to Ethiopia and later to Djibouti from where he will go to Kenya and Chad before coming to Nigeria. "His visit is also an opportunity to encourage Kenya's leaders to engage with citizens from across the political spectrum on political, economic, electoral, and security issues".

Making Tillerson's job harder, he's showing up on the continent with few concrete goals or new actions to announce.

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Tillerson's visit also comes after the recent mass kidnapping of schoolgirls in Nigeria.

For Tillerson, who did not visit Africa during his first year as the top US diplomat, it may be that the best way to show deference to a continent suspicious of Trump is to listen. But with China edging out Western interests, dealing with dictators and democrats alike, the Trump administration appears to be adopting a more pragmatic approach, homing in on what matters most to Washington: containing the threat of terrorism in East Africa and the Sahel.

So far, the defining feature of this administration's Africa policy is its ramping-up counterterrorism engagement. No assistant secretary for Africa has been named.

The U.S. noted recent United Nations reports about some of the extremist operations in the G-5 countries and the Trans-Sahel. This rhetoric implies little change in the US agenda in Africa since the end of the cold war and may reflect apparent White House disengagement and disinterest in the world's second largest continent.

"... In a speech before leaving Washington, Mr. Tillerson trumpeted American efforts to improve access to electricity across Africa and provide critical drugs for millions of people to treat HIV/AIDS". The energy behemoth has significant business dealings in sub-Saharan Africa, including in Chad, Nigeria and Equatorial Guinea.

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